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Opinion | Take the Deal: Brittney Griner in Exchange for the ‘Merchant of Death’

In November 2011, the notorious Russian weapons trafficker Viktor Bout was sentenced by a New York court to 25 years in prison for his crimes. In February 2022, Brittney Griner, the legendary WNBA basketball player, was arrested in Moscow for allegedly having illegal vape cartridges. Now Russia is reportedly asking for an exchange — the Merchant of Death for the All-Star.

Bout provided tons of guns and ammunition to some of the most vicious warlords in the world and empowered them to carry out unspeakable atrocities. He is responsible for enabling murderous groups to kidnap and train thousands of child soldiers; use rape as a systematic method of terror and control; torture through the mass amputations of arms, legs, ears and lips; slaughter civilians, and help the Taliban take power in Afghanistan. Griner may have been carrying vape cartridges that were banned in Russia but not in much of the world.

There is no parity in the negotiations or symmetry in the lives or actions of the two potential protagonists. But President Joe Biden should take the deal.

I covered the wars and victims of Bout’s weapons trade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo as a correspondent for the Washington Post. The Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War” was loosely based on Bout, and I co-wrote with Stephen Braun a non-fiction account of the savagery he enabled. There are no words to describe the human toll of Bout’s activities on thousands of people, from the armless child amputees in refugee camps to the scorched rural hamlets burned to the ground by marauding children traumatized into killing their own families.

Bout ran an aviation and weapons empire from the fall of the Soviet Union until his arrest in Thailand in 2008. He built his business by ferrying lethal weapons by the ton to buyers in exchange for cash, diamonds and timber. He was acting, his brother said, as merely a taxi service — a chauffeur with no responsibility to know the contents of the passenger’s baggage he was carrying. But he knew exactly what he was doing.

In addition to arming the worst sectors of humanity, Bout made a fortune flying for the U.S. military in Iraq during the war there. Ultimately, he was arrested while attempting to sell weapons to undercover Drug Enforcement Administration informants posing as buyers for Colombia’s notorious FARC guerrillas. In the meeting before his arrest, Bout offered an array of sophisticated weapons, helpfully adding they could be used to kill U.S. military advisers in Colombia.

Griner, in contrast, was in Russia to play professional basketball just before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Having proven herself to be one of the best players of all time, the ill-fated timing of her trip transformed her into a terrified young woman illegally detained in brutal conditions for what at best would be a minor misdemeanor. And a pawn that the Russians immediately recognized the value of. (Griner pleaded guilty on Thursday to carrying cannabis oil, but her ultimate fate remains unclear.)

So why even consider the potential offer? First, Bout is a spent force who will be out of jail in a few years anyway. His business depended on personal relationships and trust among the parties. After being out of the business for more than a decade, Bout has neither of those left in the shadowy world in which he once operated. Second, Bout needed access to a global network stretching from Afghanistan to Europe, Africa and South America. That network has morphed through several generations of new actors, markets and gatekeepers. Bout has no currency in that world now.

Finally, Bout depended in the early years on the gross negligence of the former Soviet states to allow him to simply fly out aircraft and weapons in a spree of de facto privatization of one of the world’s most advanced arsenals. In his later years, he was reined in by the Russian state under Putin, no longer able to freelance at will and without unfettered access to massive caches of weapons. It is unlikely he would have any freedom of movement in the weapons trade unless he was in the direct service of the Russian intelligence services, and now he is burned beyond the ability to be useful in any significant capacity.

Many of those who carried out the operation to end Bout’s ability to enable crimes against humanity will not agree with me. The hunt for Bout was long and arduous, and the operation that led to his arrest was the stuff of the best spy thrillers. The diplomatic and Department of Justice efforts to get Bout to the U.S. to stand trial were a testament to how a whole of government approach can work when done well. And the trial showed the world at least a small piece of who Bout is and the monstrous nature of his crimes.

There should be no mercy for Bout and only his victims could offer forgiveness. But there is now a chance for an act of compassion for an innocent life; his low-risk release would be a fitting finale for someone who has caused so much harm. Bout has already lost what he most valued — his ability to move freely across the globe and act with impunity as an agent of chaos in the service of his Russian handlers and his own interests. His freedom could not restore that, and he will be forever known as the Merchant of Death, a stain he will never be able to remove.

If Griner regains her freedom, she regains the family fighting for her release, a spouse working tirelessly on her behalf, and, I hope, her rightful place among the basketball pantheon of great players. It may not be perfect justice, but it’s a closer version of it than having an innocent person wrongfully imprisoned simply to confine a guilty person who can no longer inflict much more damage.